Maintained special schools
Number of providers 2023
Number of providers 2022
Number of providers 2021
No. of all pupils
No. of pupils 2021-22
No. of pupils 2020-21
Percentage of pupils aged 5 to 15 eligible for free school meals
No. of core inspections: 7
No. of case studies: 6
No. in follow-up September 2022
No. removed 2022-2023
No. went into follow-up 2022-2023
Total in follow-up in August 2023
Maintained special schools provide education for children with complex needs. Many of these schools cater for pupils across a wide range of ages, from 3 to 19 years. Due to the complex and multiple additional learning needs (ALN) of pupils at special schools, their ability range varies considerably and is not necessarily related to their age.
The number of pupils at Wales’s special schools continues to grow year on year (Welsh Government, 2023). Our visits and inspections during 2022-2023 found that, overall, the care, support and guidance for pupils within the sector continued to be a significant strength. Inspectors found that schools maintained positive working relationships between staff members and pupils, which had a beneficial impact on the progress pupils made. In all schools inspected this year, family and community engagement was also a strength.
Although many pupils made sound progress from their initial starting points, at three of the schools inspected, quality assurance and self-evaluation activities did not focus well enough on pupils’ progress or the quality of teaching.
Special schools generally reported that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had continued to lessen during the year. However, challenges remained, such as the lower than usual attendance rates of some pupils. In addition, schools reported that, overall, the profile of pupils referred to them was becoming more complex, for example due to increased mental health needs.
Teaching and learning
At all maintained special schools inspected, most pupils made at least suitable progress from their initial starting points. Across all of the schools visited, pupils made appropriate progress in developing their independence skills in line with their abilities. This ranged from being confident and capable in self-care and dressing, to cooking meals and shopping independently on a budget.
Inspectors found that many pupils made particularly strong progress in improving their communication skills. This enabled them to access the curriculum, engage with each other, make choices and express themselves effectively. Generally, pupils made suitable use of digital technology to communicate and to support their learning. Where appropriate, they used eye-controlled assistive technology and tablet computers successfully to support their communication needs. However, at two of the schools inspected, staff members did not use pupils’ preferred communication strategies consistently enough to support their engagement and participation in learning. Overall, where relevant, pupils’ Welsh language skills development was inconsistent across the schools inspected. Inspectors found that pupils at one school made strong progress in developing these skills, but that pupils’ progress was too limited at two schools.
Across the seven schools inspected, inspectors found that collaborative curriculum planning was generally a strong feature that incorporated ideas on what to learn from both pupils and staff members. Each of the schools provided a curriculum that was suitably broad and balanced and generally prepared pupils well for their next stage of life and learning. Most older pupils gained a wide range of accreditation and meaningful qualifications to support the transition to the next stage of their lives. They successfully progressed to planned destinations that generally reflected their needs and abilities well. However, at two schools, learning experiences were not matched well enough to the needs of pupils. In addition, staffing capacity at one school was insufficient to fully meet the complex needs of some pupils. Recruiting and retaining suitably skilled support staff members continues to be a challenge for the sector.
Work placements for pupils at Woodlands High School, Cardiff
A very few older pupils at Woodlands High School develop highly beneficial independence skills when they attend work placements, which are well matched to their personalities, skills and interests. Pupils gain valuable experience in applying, and being interviewed, for placements at a range of vocational settings including a dogs home, local museum and theatre. In addition, longer internships at local hospitals and universities give pupils a range of wider experiences including laboratory work, catering and information services. This helps them to develop the confidence to adapt to new situations, tasks and challenges, that will serve them well in various aspects of their personal and professional lives.
Inspectors found that three of the schools inspected were making increasingly creative and highly effective use of outdoor learning environments. Pupils learned about nature; they grew plants and vegetables, built dens, engaged in muddy play and cooked food on outside fires. However, inspectors found that the outdoor space at one other school was unsafe for pupils, and this resulted in a well-being letter being issued to the school.
Each of the seven schools had developed appropriate systems to track the progress that pupils made over time. Where appropriate, these were being adapted in line with changes to the curriculum. However, three of the seven schools inspected did not use this information well enough to plan curriculum experiences and set individual targets for improvement.
Staff generally provided pupils with effective verbal feedback. However, at two of the schools, written feedback was not clear enough for pupils to know how to improve.
Learner assessment at Ysgol Pen Coch, Flintshire
Ysgol Pen Coch features in our thematic report on effective approaches to assessment that improve teaching and learning. We note that the school has reframed assessment as part of a holistic narrative of the child. Approaches to assessment have been streamlined to be more closely linked to curriculum planning. They combine a range of existing frameworks to support their planning for learning across the areas of learning and experience. Staff members developed their own frameworks to support pupils with profound multiple learning difficulties or sensory needs. The sharing of the planning of both teaching and assessment with teaching assistants, allows for a wider field of assessments and a clearer focus on ensuring that pupils are progressing at an appropriate rate. In addition, all practitioners’ understanding of the intended learning for each activity has improved.
Care, support and well-being
The care, support and guidance provided by each of the maintained special schools inspected was a significant strength. All schools knew their pupils and their families well, and all worked effectively with other professionals to provide a service that was generally very well matched to the needs of pupils.
Support for parents and families at Riverbank and Ty Gwyn schools, Cardiff
Riverbank and Ty Gwyn schools, part of the Western Learning Federation, have developed effective practices to engage with parents. This includes providing regular opportunities for parents to meet in a range of different settings, for example informal coffee mornings as well as daytime family workshops for paediatric first aid and language development. In addition, Ty Gwyn provides support to parents of pupils with ALN from other schools. They also plan effectively to support parents and carers where English is an additional language, ensuring that their language needs are met. As a result, the support provided by both schools is highly valued by parents and carers.
The school provision and support panel at St Christopher’s School, Wrexham
Staff at St Christopher’s School established a provision and support panel as a result of the rapid changes in the complexity of pupil needs linked to the implementation of the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018. Leaders identified that the school also needed to quickly develop its support for pupils’ well-being and its approach to staff members’ professional learning, to manage these challenges. This multi-disciplinary forum is used to consider in detail the support provided by the school to meet pupils’ needs. When it does make referrals to external partners it is assured that these are appropriate. As a result, leaders report that staff feel more confident in planning for, and meeting the needs of, pupils with a range of complex additional needs. The school is now in a strong position to support pupils, parents and staff members as the profile of the pupil cohort changes.
Inspectors found that, at each of the schools inspected, staff members had built highly effective relationships with pupils. They had created safe and nurturing environments where pupils were encouraged to develop and flourish. Pupils responded well to the structure and routine that their schools provided.
Overall, the respect that pupils showed to each other, to staff members and to visitors was a particularly strong feature of each of the schools. Pupils worked well alongside their peers, they celebrated each other’s successes and mostly enjoyed each other’s company. Over time, they learned to understand that pupils may think and act in ways that are different to themselves.
Across the schools inspected, pupils enjoyed and relished the opportunities provided to be involved in school councils and other pupil voice groups. Members of school councils represented the interests of pupils well. They became increasingly confident in expressing their views and presenting compelling arguments for improvements in their schools, including developing the curriculum offer.
Schools generally had very secure arrangements to support regular attendance. However, despite their best efforts, overall attendance remained below pre-pandemic levels.
Leading and improving
Overall, at each of the seven schools that were inspected, leaders ensured that the vision and ethos of their schools were formed around the best interests of their pupils. Leaders of maintained special schools continually adapted provision to meet the changing needs of pupils.
Inspectors found that arrangements for quality assuring the work of schools had largely returned to pre-pandemic norms. In the better examples, a full range of activity was used well to both monitor current improvement work and to determine areas for improvement going forward. However, during the learning walks and lesson observations they undertook, a few leaders did not focus well enough on the standard of pupils’ work and the progress they were making. In addition, these leaders’ evaluations of the quality of teaching were overly generous and lacked adequate focus on identifying areas for improvement.
Governors were generally knowledgeable about their school and its priorities. In the best examples, the skills and broad expertise that individual governors had were used well to help address improvement priorities. These governors could offer insightful support and challenge to school leaders on these priorities.
Governing body role in self-evaluation at Ysgol Plas Brondyffryn, Denbighshire
Two special schools were involved in our thematic report about school governors.
At Ysgol Plas Brondyffryn, we note that the governing body has a well-established system in place to self-evaluate its effectiveness. Each year, governors complete a self-evaluation activity, which allows them to identify areas for improvement for the governing body itself. As a result, governors recognised the need for them to have a strong presence in the school and to be involved in first-hand evidence gathering. This led to them revising and expanding the role of their link governors and has strengthened the governing body’s ability to evaluate the progress the school is making against the priorities of the school improvement plan.
Across the sector, Inspectors found that the professional learning of staff members was generally a strength but was not always strategically planned. Staff members were increasingly involved in networks of professional practice. They accessed relevant courses and events to further improve and refine their knowledge and understanding of national priorities, including developments in the curriculum. Links with other providers, for example local further education colleges, were used to support the professional development of support staff.
All leaders managed their school budgets effectively and grant funding was used well for its intended purpose. However, there was significant variation in the funding available per pupil to maintained special schools across Wales (Welsh Government, 2022).
Welsh Government (2022) Budgeted Expenditure on Special Educational Needs (SEN) Provision: 2022-23. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: https://www.gov.wales/sites/default/files/statistics-and-research/2022-06/budgeted-expenditure-special-educational-needs-provision-april-2022-march-2023-004.pdf [Accessed 16 November 2023]
Welsh Government (2023) Schools’ census results: January 2023. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: https://www.gov.wales/schools-census-results-january-2023 [Accessed 17 November 2023]